A critique of MPLADS: Do MPs really need quotas?

Their primary job is legislation and ensure accountability of the executive. But MPs and MLAs now compete with the Sarpanch to execute schemes, which suits the Government

A park in Goa developed from MPLAD fund (For representational purpose only)
A park in Goa developed from MPLAD fund (For representational purpose only)
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Meenakshi Natarajan

Feudal traditions continue to thrive in democratic India. Even after nearly 75 years of Independence, villages are still decked up for visits by ministers, MLAs and MPs, usually at public cost. Villagers gather in the school compound or under a marquee. Flowers and garlands of marigold are commissioned and school students spend days rehearsing the ‘welcome song’. Sofas and chairs, the more comfortable ones earmarked for the more important people, are arranged; and the village Sarpanch or the local VIP prepares a welcome speech and reads out a list of ‘demands’ before ceremonially presenting them to the visiting VIP.

The ‘demands’ often relate to schools, Anganwadis, health centres, concrete roads, tubewells, sheds, panchayat bhavans etc. The VIP arrives usually several hours late and generously announces the ‘grant’ of a certain amount from his or her MPLAD or MLA’s Local Area Development Fund. It is of course the tax payers’ money and comes out of the budget. But many MPs and MLAs insist that their names and their generosity be acknowledged for posterity.

These announcements, reminiscent of the feudal tradition of ‘Bakhsheesh’ when rulers would reward someone by taking off a necklace of pearls and hurling it to the favoured one, give the halo of a Santa Claus to the elected representatives and are very much in the nature of rewards.

With the EVM in use and the counting of votes without mixing the votes of a large number of booths (a proposal by the Election Commission to use Totaliser machines to mix votes in 40 or more booths was turned down by the Government on the plea that it needs to know how each village has voted) build additional pressure to reward supportive villages and ignore villages which did not vote for the winner.

Thus, these public funds are used as rewards for some and punishment for others for exercising their right to franchise. This is clearly unfair and undemocratic. But as long as people do not question the practice, elected representatives are happy to continue with the feudal exercise.

The MPLAD scheme was launched in 1993. Panchayati Raj had recently been reformed and empowered. Rather than a few hundred MPs and a few thousand MLAs deciding what was best for 100 Crore Indians and more, lakhs of elected representatives in villages, it was felt, should in all fairness determine their priorities and allocate funds accordingly.

What then prompted the MPLAD fund? There can be the innocent explanation that MPs were entrusted with the fund so that they could give incentives to the needier or better performing panchayats; or there could be a more political explanation that the power elite were reluctant to lose their control and foisted this scheme to perpetuate their influence.

Subsequently states too introduced similar funds for MLAs and the amounts allocated for the MPLAD scheme were hiked twice.

What is more, this culture of doles and dispensation has changed the quality of discourse. Elected representatives no longer discuss policies, new or old, and their implementation. The discourse is now primarily transactional with various lobbies bargaining for funds and projects and seeking help of elected representatives in obtaining them.

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A key fallout has been that legislators have started behaving like the executive. Spending public money is the remit of the executive and not the legislature. But MPs and MLAs are now busy competing with elected panchayat representatives in getting schemes approved and implemented. Development itself is now largely restricted to construction activities.

MPs and MLAs have thus abdicated their primary job of legislation and their responsibility to formulate policies and keep a watch on how budgeted amounts are spent. Their primary concern now is how to spend the petty amounts that they control under the MP and the MLA local area development funds. They have shifted their focus from institutions of excellence and national importance to mere village roads and schools.

Political and policy related issues have taken a back seat and the discourse with constituents now in large parts of the country is no longer on politics or policies. The opportunity to create public opinion and build political awareness among the masses has thus been lost.

The funds are of course never enough to fulfil every need and requirement of every village. Yet they have frequently been utilised on meaningful schemes, depending on the commitment of the MP concerned. The rules are also clear that amounts are to be deposited into the treasury and not into the MPs’ personal accounts; and the funds do not lapse. But it has also been noticed that supervision is often lax and one increasingly finds the ‘contractor lobby’ calling the shots and luring elected representatives with financial carrots.

The MPLAD Fund was recently suspended for a year and the amount diverted to PMCARES Fund. With the Government stubbornly denying demands for transparency and auditing of PMCARES Fund on the dubious plea that it is a private fund, nobody would ever get to know how the funds were utilized. This upset many MPs who have argued that they could have utilised the amount better during the pandemic to help their constituents.

Till recently Members of Parliament also had discretionary quotas to allocate petrol pumps, berths in trains and gas and phone connections. They still enjoy quotas for admission to central schools and for enabling Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. This however is neither helpful to the MP, who cannot please everyone, nor to the people.

The role reversal and the culture of quotas have meant that MPs no longer discuss issues related to modernization of the Railways or safety of trains in Parliament. They are now content to raise demands for a new station or a new train in their own constituency. They no longer discuss teaching standards, the syllabi and recruitment of teachers, but are content to get six of their nominees admitted to central schools.

These quotas are undemocratic and do nothing to strengthen democracy. A better alternative is to strengthen Panchayats and District Planning Committees and hand over the funds to them. Panchayats must determine policies, priorities and allocations. People must not be allowed to believe that their only democratic duty is to cast their votes once in five years. Dialogue on policy issues between the elected representatives and the constituents alone will ensure that we move from representative democracy to a participatory democracy.

(The writer is a former Member of Parliament from Madhya Pradesh)

Views are personal

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